“I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.” – Nelson Mandela
So where do we go from here?
The history is clear, the ethics are abominable, and there are no good excuses for DC Comics’ actions. Yet even if everyone can agree that what has come so far is crappy, that still leaves open the question of what should be done next. That is most likely the most difficult part of this entire controversy. It is not the admittance that sins have been committed, but the decision on how we should act given that knowledge.
It is a much more difficult question to tackle.
There Is No Right Answer
This may seem like a cop out, but it’s truly not. Ethical questions are difficult even in imagined scenarios. In real life they become even more thorny. Providing a one-size-fits-all solution ignores the many different perspectives someone might have to this situation. How an employee of DC Comics, a pop culture journalist, and a fan of superhero stories will respond will be entirely different.
Some people may quietly refuse to read Doomsday Clock, while others might vocally denounce it and encourage others to do the same. Some may refuse to accept paid work for it, while others may minimize their contact without risking their jobs. Many will do nothing at all. There is no one right answer here, and there’s no arbiter of comics ethics in the position to tell any one person how they must behave.
That doesn’t make all responses right either. Pitching a story to include Doctor Manhattan in a DC Comics crossover next year is an inappropriate response to the facts. So is the publication of a longform piece decrying Alan Moore as a crank who doesn’t deserve to control anything he has created. These examples would seem like straw men if they weren’t already very real responses.
We Can Agree On The Facts
The double-edged sword of Watchmen’s success for DC Comics is that its history is well-documented. It’s easy to research what actually happened every year from the story’s conception in 1985 forward. Countless interviews, articles, and wiki pages have been dedicated to the subject. That makes it relatively easy to agree on the facts.
David Brothers provided a quick summation of the facts and history leading to Before Watchmen in 12 points that you can find here. It’s a much more concise version of the first part of this essay and worth reviewing because this is very much what happened in a two minute summary. If we can’t agree on that, then we can’t agree on a shared reality.
But I think we can agree on the facts of this situation because they’re well sourced and have been covered extensively on comics websites. DC Comics’ treatment of Moore and Gibbons is not up for debate; that’s the common ground from which we can move forward.
Let’s Make The Next Step Better
We may not be able to agree on what the right thing to do regarding Watchmen is, but if we can agree on the facts then there’s the possibility of improvement.
Nothing will stop Doomsday Clock from being published, and it’s unlikely DC Comics will stop screwing Alan Moore or Dave Gibbons in the foreseeable future. That doesn’t change how we address the issue or the future of comics.
We can all look at Doomsday Clock and admit that it is the result of three decades of bad behavior. We can acknowledge this publicly without making excuses for that bad behavior. Simply put, we can speak the truth. And when someone is unaware or unfamiliar with that truth we can point to the known history that makes it clear.
By doing so, we can clarify what behavior is acceptable and what is unacceptable. We can recognize that ethics matters, the same in comics as it does everywhere else. We can reaffirm what we are willing to tolerate and what is intolerable. We can agree upon a set of facts that allow us to discuss what doing the right thing means. Even if this does not make what happened with Watchmen any better, it might prevent it from happening to others. The past is still with us; the mistreatments of Moore, Gibbons, Kirby, Finger, Siegel, Shuster, and hundreds of others are posted across new comics each week. The future is ours to define though.
We live in an increasingly strange world. Real news is decried as fake and attention to ethical concerns is put down as unrealistic. Worrying over the disastrous treatment of two creators in superhero comics might seem small as we worry about a very real Doomsday Clock ticking ever closer to midnight, but this example has never been more pertinent.
Even if you decry the anger and frustrations of Moore as a storm in a teacup, that storm is a reflection of the much larger battle being waged in politics, business, and the environment right now. Our response to the mistreatment of two creators by DC Comics helps to inform our response to the mistreatment of an entire island of American citizens or thousands of small communities suffering in an opioid epidemic. At the center of all of these issues lies the same central question: What is the right thing?
Answering that question is difficult even in this small piece of comics history, but that does not make it impossible here or in far more serious circumstances. We possess the means to understand and reason in order to find solutions or, at the very least, some common ground.
We can look at the history and the facts of a situation.
We can argue based upon those facts for what is right and what is wrong.
We can assess other’s arguments to better understand what is right.
And we can arrive at a conclusion.
Let’s not dismiss Doomsday Clock as a minor ethical debacle. Dismissing one wrong as too small allows us to do the same for ever mounting, ever greater wrongs. Instead let’s begin to acknowledge real facts and discuss what the right thing to do is. We can start right here in comics and move forward to solving the great issues of our day.
Watchmen might provide a bleak view of the future, but we can provide a better answer.
The complete series:
Part Four: The Way Forward